How to manage online reputation

12/08/2011 -by:Silvina Moschini , President and Founder of TransparentBusiness

For companies, resisting the temptation of eliminating criticism on Facebook or Google can be hard, but trying to cover a mistake just makes it worse.

The well-known advertising agency SapientNitro recently experienced a strong reality check about what it means to manage an online reputation. The company uploaded to its Facebook profile a self-promotional video called Idea Engineers, with the aim of showcasing the creativity of its employees. However, the repercussions were completely negative, and dozens of users published comments ridiculing the company and wondering how an advertising agency could have done such a bad job.

Furthermore, the worst was yet to come. Instead of responding to the criticism and coping with the situation, the agency made the worst possible decision: to eliminate the video from its Facebook profile and delete the critical comments. Automatically, the "affaire SapientNitro” took on much greater significance through Twitter, and specialized websites echoed the company’s mistake. SapientNitro was forced to publish a note on its blog responding to the users’ criticisms, but by then, its image on the social networks had been heavily damaged. 

Criticism as an opportunity

There is a recurring fear among companies that want to develop a social network positioning strategy—how to deal with negative comments. The new communications paradigm presented by the online social platforms creates for corporations an unprecedented scenario: they must deal publicly with users who are unhappy with their products and services and with the way they develop their communications strategies.

Although it seems contrary to common sense, companies must understand that a comment from an unsatisfied customer can become an opportunity. A recent study (pdf) from Harris Interactive shows that a negative criticism can be converted and even translated into a sales increase.

The research, carried out in the United States, showed that 68% of the customers who published negative comments on a social network, related to a product purchase during the previous holiday, were contacted by the sales company. Surprisingly, after that contact, 34% of the users deleted the negative comments; 33% modified their positions and published positive comments; and what is more important, 18% purchase again from the brand he/she had initially criticized. 

Knowing to identify the users’ needs 

The first question that a communication professional asks himself when his brand gets negative feedback on the social networks is, “How do I hide it?” This might seem to be a logical reaction. However, the question we should ask ourselves when this situation arises is, “What is the user looking for when leaving a negative comment?”

This question is quite simple to answer, although it does not seem so. What the complainer is looking for is a response, nothing more, nothing less. An authorized voice that, in the name of the company, shows willingness to solve the problem that the customer is facing. And, if necessary, has the humility and the intelligence to admit that mistakes have been made by the company.

The aforementioned study by Harris Interactive adds that of the 32% of the users who did not get a response to their negative comments, 61% would have been surprised if the seller had contacted them. Here lies the opportunity provided by social networks to deal with the negative comments of consumers. Surely, a large portion of the customers who did not expect a response to their complaints would have changed their initial position if they had received a response. 

Learning from mistakes

The social networks have forced companies to accept a level of exposure that did not exist in traditional media. These problems, developed previously in this section, present brands with the challenge of handling their reputations in an environment where consumers have an unprecedented exercise of power. 

On the other hand, the companies have an opportunity that must not be wasted. They can know their customers’ opinions in real time, respond to them, and if they handle them appropriately, revise the negative impressions. Under no circumstances should they try to hide or eliminate critical comments. 

The recent case of SapientNitro shows that companies have to manage their images in more complex environments. In this respect, public discussion of a brand is not directed unilaterally by its promoters. Customers have more and more influence, and companies must provide room for their expression, listen to them, and respect their opinions. Otherwise, a simple critical comment can become an authentic crisis.